“Soul Food For Thought” or “Can Commercial Art Be Fine?” April 24, 2011 – Posted in: A Picture's Worth, Blog, Featured Columns – Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I recently came across a discussion on LinkedIn titled, I have no choice as to whether or not I should create. It is essential to my being. The difference between Fine Art and commercial art is whether or not the artists has put their soul into a piece.”

Very thought provoking, pithy and powerful. What struck me first (other than the singular/plural typo and the pretentious capitalization) is the degree to which I agreed with the first two sentences and disagreed with the third. I’ve read many an interview, article and column from both writers and artists describing their/our innate need to do what they/we do. An artist has to draw.  A writer has to write. (Or to paraphrase Peter David’s double negative, “A writer can’t not write.” Meaning it’s more difficult to refrain from writing than to just write.) I get that.

But the soul thing?

Nope. Not at all.

There was a time, through college and up till a decade or so ago, when I would have agreed. I always reasoned that a commercial piece (work which is assigned in exchange for payment, as opposed to a piece created personally that may or may not be sold later) is full of restrictions–size, deadline, subject, sometimes technique and even style–where a personal work (fine art) is just that, personal. The artist has no restrictions or limitations other than his/her imagination and skill. So naturally the latter will have “soul” and the former would not.

However, that bit of logic is simply too narrow. It supposes that anyone receiving monetary motivation for an artistic effort would simply shut off his soul to get paid, and that the one painting without commercial compensation would always pour his soul into every single stroke. The fields of illustration, commercial art, fine art and personal art are so vast and varied as to make that impossible.


Yes, it would probably apply to an illustration of a Kellogg’s cereal box or a Goodyear tire as opposed to a Van Gogh self-portrait or a Jackson Pollack paint-throwing exercise.

But what about a typical Renaissance or Baroque figurative commission vs. a cranked-out landscape painting done to be sold as prints “for-the-masses”? An iconic Saturday Evening Post painted cover vs. an intellectual Pop-Art experiment? A personal comic book cover illustration vs. a giant copy of another artist’s single panel as a “statement”?

Michelangelo vs. Kinkade. Frazetta vs. Newman. Eisner vs. Lichtenstein. Look at the examples below:


See what I mean? Draw your own conclusions. (Keep in mind, tho, if you get paid to draw those conclusions first, they have no soul.)

Just to extrapolate, we could also throw in the “no soul” camp most of the work by Raphael, Rubens, Bronzino, Titian, Van Eyck, J.W. Waterhouse, John Singer Sargent, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Alphonse Mucha, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Gil Elvgren, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, John Buscema, Burne Hogarth, Hal Foster, Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, Adam Hughes, Frank Cho, Alex Ross and…me! (I was not aware before reading that discussion that I never put any soul into any of my paid work. The things I learn on LinkedIn!) In other words, a bowl of collard greens and a plate of grits would have more soul than all of those guys’ commercial art put together.

Sorry. I’m not buyin’ it. Are you? Hit me with your thoughtful thoughts below.



P.S.: If you’d like your own “fine” art (as in, “Man, that is FINE!”) commission from yours truly, I’d be honored. Just ask kind Craig here. Soul included free of charge!

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